Kirk Siegler

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.

Siegler grew up near Missoula, MT, and received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Colorado.  He’s an avid skier and traveler in his spare time.

Schools tend to be the center of the community in small towns across America. That's probably never been more the case for Middletown, Calif., than right now.

Last month, when a wildfire destroyed more than half of the town in the mountains north of San Francisco, the schools were miraculously spared. They've since reopened and are offering a respite from the sad, day-to-day struggles many students and staff are facing.

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This has been one of the worst — and most expensive — wildfire seasons ever in the Northwest, where climate change and a history of suppressing wildfires have created a dangerous buildup of fuels.

With fires burning hotter and more intense, there are renewed calls to change how the federal government pays to fight the biggest fires.

"These large and intense fires are a natural disaster in much the same way a hurricane or a tornado or a flood is," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says. "And they ought to be funded as such through the emergency funding of FEMA."

The iconic forests of the Pacific Northwest — with their towering, moss-covered fir and pine trees — have never been this dry. The grass underneath the ferns has already turned gold.

Of the five large wildfires burning in Washington alone right now, one has scorched more than 1,500 acres of a rainforest on the typically misty Olympic Peninsula.

The wildfire threat in the drought-stricken Pacific Northwest right now is extraordinary, and there are concerns that the region may not be prepared for a long summer.

A Wake-Up Call

Rural Tulare County, Calif., is now being called the epicenter of this drought.

That's because at least 1,300 residential wells have run dry, affecting at least 7,000 people. When your taps start spitting out air here, Paul Boyer and his team are who you call.

Under a punishing midafternoon sun, Boyer helps muscle down five of these hefty 400-pound water tanks from a semi-truck flatbed. He helps run a local nonprofit that's in charge of distributing these 2,500-gallon water tanks to drought victims.

Travel up and down California farm country, the Central Valley, and you hardly hear people lamenting the lack of rain or how dry this past winter was. What you hear, from the agriculture industry and many local and national politicians, are sentiments like those expressed by Rep. Devin Nunes:

"Well, what I always like to say is that this is a man-made drought created by government," the Central Valley Republican says.

Swayambhunath — also known as the Monkey Temple, for its holy, furry dwellers that swing from the rosewood trees — is one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist sites in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, an important pilgrimage destination for Hindus as well as Buddhists. It was also one of the worst damaged by last month's earthquake.

Where is the aid?

That's what the people of the ancient city of Bhaktapur want to know.

The historic gate to old Bhaktapur is about the only thing still standing after the earthquake. The ornate temples have crumbled. Brick homes were reduced to rubble. People have lost everything, including loved ones.

People are living under tarps or out in the open, without running water or toilets. Some 70 people are living in an improvised hut. Flies are everywhere. People say they haven't had any help from the outside — no medicine, no food.

Transportation officials in the U.S. and Canada are imposing tougher safety standards on trains hauling crude oil.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Canada's Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced Friday that shippers must use stronger tank cars to haul oil across North America by October 1. The new rules will also mandate the use of a controversial braking system on trains carrying crude.

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No cargo will go in or out of 29 West Coast ports this weekend.

It's the third partial shutdown in operations at these ports in a week, the result of a bitter labor dispute between shipping lines and the union representing 20,000 dock workers. The dispute has been dragging on for eight months, and now the economic impacts of the shutdown are starting to be felt.

In Southern California many schools are facing tough questions about measles.

California is one of 20 states that allow students to opt out of school vaccination requirements when those rules conflict with their parents' personal beliefs. Many affluent areas along the California coast are home to schools with some of the highest "personal belief exemption" rates in the country. And that is creating some tension for administrators and health officials.

There's a PSA that greets you on the radio when you're driving the flat stretch of Colorado State Highway 113 near the Nebraska state line: "With marijuana legal under Colorado law, we've all got a few things to know. ... Once you get here, can't leave our state. Stick around, this place is pretty great."

A year ago, as part of our series on the Great Plains oil rush, we brought you the story of a 36-year-old father who had recently lost his job when one of the last major timber mills in the Northwest shut down. After several years struggling to find steady work and even after going back to school, Rory Richardson decided to commute 550 miles from his home in far western Montana, to a place where jobs are plentiful - the oil fields of North Dakota. But after a little more than a year, he and his family have decided the toll is just too great.

Colorado is one of the battleground states where Republicans made big gains this week. Republicans in the state believe they now have momentum going into the 2016 presidential election.

But the GOP has suffered some punishing losses there lately, owing in part to the state's changing demographics. That trend may still be a big factor in 2016.

The last time Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat here was when Wayne Allard was re-elected in 2002. Back then, Congressman and now Senator-elect Cory Gardner was a young staffer working behind the scenes for Allard.

The past few years have been California's driest on record. Forecasters predict that punishing droughts like the current one could become the new norm.

The state uses water rationing and a 90-year-old water distribution system to cope until the rains come. The system is a huge network of dams, canals and pipes that move water from the places it rains and snows to places it typically doesn't, like farms and cities.

Steel mills, unions and the Democratic Party have defined politics in Pueblo, Colo., for decades. But that doesn't discourage George Rivera.

"When we look at values, when we look at who we are, especially as Hispanics, our values tend to be conservative," Rivera says.

Rivera, a retired deputy police chief, is going door to door for votes in a neighborhood east of downtown, near where he grew up. Last summer, he unseated local Democrat Angela Giron in the state Legislature, in a high-profile recall election that focused on guns.

At the Utah State Capitol, a mural of Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers brings some color to the building's spartan rotunda. Beneath it is a more modern sculpture — a woman walking forward with her son, who's holding a globe.

Underneath the statue are the words "Immigration and Settlement." The symbolism isn't lost on state House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

"Utah is a place that understands the value of immigration, the value of peoples coming to find a better life," she says, pointing up at the sculpture.

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Labor tensions are high at the largest port complex in the country — Los Angeles and Long Beach — which handles nearly half of all the cargo coming into the United States.

Short-haul truck drivers are striking. They're the independent, contract truckers who bring the containers off the ships to nearby warehouses for companies like Wal-Mart and Costco. At the twin ports, their numbers hover around 10,000.





This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I am Renee Montagne. Here in California today, a controversial gun control bill gets its first hearing. It was introduced in the wake of last month's mass murder near the campus of UC Santa Barbara. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When California lawmakers began debate today, expect the case of Elliott Rodger to come back into focus.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


A married couple apparently killed two police officers and another woman in Las Vegas. The husband and wife, also killed in the shooting, appear to have held anti-government and anti-law enforcement views.

While it appears the 2009 attack at Fort Hood was different in many ways from what occurred Wednesday, the latest attack is focusing attention again on security measures there. Meanwhile, we are learning more about the alleged shooter, Specialist Ivan Lopez.

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At a 10,000-foot summit in Yosemite National Park, Frank Gehrke clicks into his cross-country skis and pushes off down a small embankment onto a meadow of crusty snow. He's California's chief of snow surveys, one of the most influential jobs in a state where snow and the water that comes from it are big currency. He's on his monthly visit to one of a dozen snowpack-measuring stations scattered across the high country of the Sierra Nevada.

This is one of the best times of the year to spot gray whales off the coast of Southern California as they migrate south for the winter. But recently, there have been an unusually high number of sightings of other whales.

"We've had so many whales," Dan "The Whale Man" Salas tells the guests on his boat. "This is all in the last two weeks. We've had orcas, we had a sperm whale, we've got humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales. Yesterday we had a massive pod of gray whales, so we never know what we're going to see out here."

Thirty-four wildland firefighters died in the line of duty this year. Some of those fatalities were isolated incidents, but one event captured the nation's attention, sparking a larger conversation about the new dangers firefighters face.

That event unfolded in central Arizona the afternoon of June 30, a Sunday.

"I'm here with Granite Mountain Hot Shots. Our escape route has been cut off," says a crew boss on recently released radio traffic from the Yarnell Hill Fire. "We are preparing a deployment site, and I'll give you a call when we are under the shelters.

Longtime civil rights attorney Connie Rice has been following this week's indictments against officers in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. She says it points to a subculture of corruption within certain units, much like the city's scandal-ridden police department of the 1990s.

In the main downtown jails, sheriff's officers are accused of beating and choking inmates without provocation, harassing visitors and then covering it all up.

John Morse was president of the Colorado Senate until September, when he became the first elected official recalled in the state's history.

Three months later, he's climbing the rotunda steps of the gold-domed Capitol building — his office for seven years. He hasn't been here since October. Gazing up at the dome, he says, "This is one of my favorite things to do. That's my version of smelling the roses."

Morse's political career ended over the gun bills he pushed through these chambers eight months ago. But he says he would do it all again.